Paralympians speak out about disability benefit cuts

Several British medallists could lose much-needed financial support when Iain Duncan Smith's Personal Independence Payment replaces Disability Living Allowance on 8 April.

Only six months ago, in a period of gold-tinted optimism for disability, British Paralympians were heralded as heroes. From 8 April (pdf), Disability Living Allowance, or DLA – the benefit which helps many pay for care and mobility costs – is being scrapped and, along with more than two million other disabled people, many Paralympians now facing losing the support they rely on.

DLA’s replacement – Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – is designed to cut £2.24bn annually from the welfare budget by 2015-16. The number eligible for the new award will be smaller and the assessment criteria are narrower. According to the Government’s own estimate, the changes will see 500,000 people lose their benefit.

So what do our Paralympian heroes (copyright all papers) make of the changes? Sophie Christiansen who won three gold medals at the 2012 Paralympics in dressage, tells me that receiving Disability Living Allowance enabled her to compete in the Games.  

She has cerebral palsy and relies on the benefit to pay for the extra care support she needs when she goes away to competitions, as well as the wheelchair and scooter she uses to get around venues.

She can’t walk long distances or use public transport very easily on her own and DLA paid for the car she needs to drive herself to training.  

 

Sophie Christiansen. Photo: Getty

The Paralympians might have been sold as "superhumans" during the Games, but the reality is that many of them have extra financial needs because of their disabilities. Christiansen tells me it can be a struggle to meet them financially.

“The Paralympics were just the glamorous end product . . .” Christiansen says. “I get the same amount of funding as Olympians and they don't have to cover disability-related costs with that money.”

Natasha Baker, a para-equestrian who won two gold medals at the London Games, says she also owes her success to receiving Disability Living Allowance. As a child, it funded her riding lessons as a therapeutic sport. She now relies on it for transport, using the Mobility scheme within DLA to lease a car. 

She tells me she’s concerned that once PIP is introduced, she will no longer be eligible for support. Her disability – a neurological disorder that causes severe muscle weakness – leaves her needing help with care and mobility but it can vary from day to day.

“If I have the assessment on a day I’m feeling good . . .” she says. “I’m just really worried.”

To be awarded PIP, claimants will have to score a certain number of points in relation to 12 activities, such as washing and bathing or moving around. Recent concessions to guidance mean that assessors will be required by law to consider whether claimants can perform tasks repeatedly, safely and reliably but there remains concern that the criteria are too tight and the assessment style is too restrictive. For example, Natasha Baker stresses that her mobility can depend on anything from time of day to the surface or angle of what she’s walking on. 

Baker, who was awarded an MBE this year, now finds herself worrying whether the Government will stop the money she relies on. 

She tells me she’d like those in charge of the benefit changes to spend a week in a wheelchair to see how difficult it is to get around. “There are other ways of cutting and saving money in this country,” she adds. “I don’t see why they have to target people who are vulnerable.”

 

Natasha Baker. Photo: Getty

Tara Flood, a retired Paralympic gold medallist swimmer and world record holder, says the removal of DLA is “a government attack on disabled people’s lives”. She is angry that people like her are seen as “easy targets” and tells me she’s “extremely worried” about being assessed.

It’s a concern that has only been exacerbated by the knowledge that Atos, the private healthcare company behind the much-criticised Work Capability Assessment, will be carrying out the majority of PIP assessments, having been given more than £400m worth of contracts. Last summer, Flood took part in a protest against Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics and tells me she thinks their role in determining who will receive the new benefit is “disgusting.”

“The PIP process is fundamentally flawed. I can’t imagine anyone delivering it in a way that isn’t dehumanising,” she says. “The impact will be so shocking. Twenty per cent of disabled people who receive this support are going to lose it . . . I’m terrified.”

Like Sophie Christiansen and Natasha Baker, Tara relies on her mobility allowance to help pay for an adapted car. She now faces the fear of losing it as DLA is removed and assessments for PIP begin.

Under the new rules, claimants must be unable to walk more than 20 metres to receive the enhanced mobility component of PIP - and without this, they will not qualify for the Motability scheme. The narrower eligibility criteria mean it is feared that many people with significant mobility impairments will be denied the vehicle they currently rely on for independence. The Department of Work and Pension’s own estimate is that over the next five years some 428,000 people will lose their eligibility. Disability campaigners are currently working to mount a judicial review on what was a last minute and controversial change to the assessment criteria.

Tara Flood tells me that losing her car would damage every aspect of her life. “I would effectively be isolated in my own home,” she says. “I’d lose my job, my connection to my community, my family.”

She’s clearly angry at the benefit changes but also what she sees as the accompanying, ever prevalent, idea that disabled people are asking too much. “I want to live an ordinary life in a society that treats me as a human being,” she stresses. “That isn’t unreasonable.”

Flood tells me she thinks back on her hope that Great Britain’s Paralympics triumphs would have a positive effect on the lives of disabled people in this country. As she and others face the imminent removal of support they rely on, it seems a cruel irony.

“When I hear ministers talk about the legacy of the Paralympics, saying how good things are . . . What planet are they living on?” she says. “In fact, things have got worse.”

Sophie Christiansen after being awarded her Paralympic gold medal last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.